How I Went From Writing Nothing to Writing a Ton

For about two and a half years, writing my dissertation was an agonizingly slow process. In that whole time, I only managed to write a single chapter. But this semester, I’ve written two chapters in just a couple of months. This change is due in part to desperation: I have to graduate in May, so I have little choice but to get this thing done. But if I’d been in this position a year ago, I likely would have had to drop out. Desperation only works when you’re equipped to use it properly.

I’ve received no shortage of writing advice over the past few years. Create a schedule and stick to it. Set process-oriented goals instead of product-oriented ones, such as writing for a certain amount of time rather than producing a certain number of words. Write for four hours a day (or two or six or eight, depending on who you ask). Don’t be a perfectionist. Take time off occasionally. Just sit down and start writing. Butt in chair. Write.

My nails never look this nice, and there are usually snacks everywhere and my cat is in my face. Otherwise, this is sort of what my writing time looks like.
My nails never look this nice, and usually there are snacks everywhere and my cat is in my face. Otherwise, this is sort of what my writing time looks like.

But for nearly three years, none of this advice really worked. Occasionally it helped, but the benefits were always fleeting. I’d work happily for a week or two with my small and reasonable process-oriented goals that were tailored to my most productive times of day. But then I would suddenly fail to meet those goals, and get too discouraged to get much done. I’d create a schedule that seemed like it should work for me, but it would quickly fall apart. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t follow the seemingly simple steps to dissertation success. I was pretty sure I just didn’t have the dedication to do it. What other reason could there be?

What I failed to recognize was that I needed to alter these steps and my approach to them to make them fit my personality, my tendencies, and my circumstances. I thought I was tailoring them to my needs, but in fact I hadn’t even figured out what my needs were. Without realizing it, I had been trying to squeeze a circular peg into a square hole–to follow what I thought should work for me rather than what actually did work for me. Unsurprisingly, all this accomplished was to make me miserable and unproductive. There were steps I needed to take–things I needed to learn–before I could implement the advice I’d been given, and to implement it effectively.

Here’s what I had to do:

I learned to prioritize enjoying the writing process.
Or at least, not hating it. My therapist suggested that I needed to make writing more enjoyable for myself, and to prioritize that above all else–above all the instructions I thought I was supposed to follow. It took a while for me to believe that this made any kind of sense, since I had become pretty deeply convinced that my failure to adhere to the dissertation advice I’d received meant there was something wrong with me. But once I started to value enjoyment above any of those expectations I had of myself, I was surprised at how productive I could be.

On days when I just couldn’t focus, I’d take a break for an hour or two, or I just wouldn’t work on my dissertation at all. I set a highly flexible schedule for myself: I knew what times were generally best for productivity, but I forgave myself when I (very frequently) got little or nothing done during those times, or just gave up on it altogether for days on end. I worked in groups as often as I could, to make the process more fun and less isolating. Most other times I worked in my home office, which has tons of natural light. I bought a good monitor and chair to help with my back pain. But when pain got distracting and unpleasant anyway, I took a break to stretch for a while, go for a walk, or just do any activity that involved standing for a little while. At the beginning, sometimes I’d only work a couple of days a week, because that’s all I could do while staying reasonably happy. Some weeks I knit more than I wrote. But as time went on, I was able to write more and more often without making myself miserable–and sometimes, I even enjoyed it.

This blog post  (which I wish I’d seen years ago!) describes a similar approach, which I really like. It posits that we “knowledge workers” could focus a little less on the industrial age perceptions of work and productivity, because productivity isn’t just about getting work done.

My happy writing space.
My happy writing space.

I learned that others struggle with writing too.
As I mentioned above, I had become convinced that my inability to be productive was due to my own personal failings. I thought that I–not my process–was the problem. But then, once again on the advice of my therapist, I tried to make writing more social–to make it a group thing rather than just a me thing. I started working in groups more often and, perhaps more importantly, I started talking about writing more often. Both with strangers on Twitter and with friends in real life, I started to admit publicly that writing was hard for me. And, to my surprise, I found out that almost everyone else had similar troubles.

The straw man PhD student I’d built in my head who had no difficulty writing for a few hours every day turned out to be entirely imaginary. All I had to do to prove this straw man wrong was to talk about my writing openly and honestly. After practicing this regularly for a few months, I finally started to believe that I was not the problem after all. I had been going about writing all wrong, but that didn’t mean I was inherently incapable of doing it right. Ironically, recognizing–and believing–that it was ok to suck at productivity made me a lot more productive. Having trouble getting work done used to frustrate me so much that, after one little setback, I’d accomplish nothing for days. Now, I forgive myself, take a break, and move on. If others struggle with writing, then why shouldn’t I?

I learned that “ugly” writing is an essential step that I can’t skip.
My perfectionism is so deeply ingrained that telling me to just stop being that way doesn’t work. I have no capacity to understand what it means, or how to change it; you may as well tell a cat to stop meowing. It’s just the way I am. I thought I wasn’t being too picky about the quality of my work; it just seemed more efficient to edit as I went, so I wouldn’t have to clean it all up later. I’d never written any other way, and I didn’t know how to write any other way. But recently, I found out that many writers believe that writing requires two distinct steps. The first is to write a rough draft–not a decent draft that needs a bit of cleaning up, but a spectacularly bad draft with little structure and nonsensical paragraphs. The second step–entirely separate from the first–is to clean it up.

I found this blog post by Alan Klima enormously helpful because it describes these two phases in a way that makes a lot of sense to a perfectionist: it posits that the first draft is not for the eyes of others, and it should be written accordingly. During this stage, you’re not supposed to write words that the reader will eventually read, because it’s too early for that. Klima suggests that this stage is absolutely crucial, because it prepares you to write what the reader will read. In other words, horrifically bad writing isn’t inefficient–it’s a critical part of the process, and it’s meant for no one but me.

To describe this first fantastically awful draft, I’ve adopted a term that I’ve seen academics on Twitter use (particularly in the #WritePeasant writing group): the “ugly draft.” I’ve started using Scrivener  to write my ugly drafts, in part to remind myself that this writing is not for others–it’s a step I’m taking to get to decent writing. While I’m using Scrivener, it’s not only okay to ignore reasonable paragraph structure and write sentences that don’t make sense: it’s essential. Once I move the draft over to Word, it’s time to pretty it up–to write words that readers will read. I can hardly believe how much faster I write now that I’ve learned to make this distinction in a way that makes sense to me. If I have the time and I’m in the right mood, I can pump out 2,000 words in an eight-hour day. They’re ugly words, but that’s exactly how it should be.

Now that I’ve taken all these steps, I am able to identify what advice works for me and what doesn’t–and that nothing is going to work for me every single day. I know that I need to think carefully about what goals will be best for me on any given day, week or month–and whether goals are even a good idea at all at that moment. Some days I start writing exactly when I’d planned to and can focus for hours on writing hundreds of words. Some days that just doesn’t happen. Sometimes I get overly concerned about the quality of my work, but I’ve found ways to counteract that enough that I can usually get something done. In other words, I’m hardly the ideal productive writer, but I’ve found a flexible process that suits my ever-changing needs and my own weird perspectives.

The above three steps have been enormously helpful for me, but I can’t imagine they’d work for everyone. We all have different needs as writers and learners. And I know not everyone has the time to slow down and barely work for a month or two while rebuilding your entire approach to productivity. I was lucky to have that luxury. But I’ve shared my experience in hopes that it shows how important it is to identify our individual needs as writers, rather than trying to squeeze circular pegs into square holes. Don’t try to change yourself to fit your process; change your process to fit you.

Unsolicited Advice for New PhD Students

If you’re reading this, you probably know that mental illness is a common problem in academia. Thankfully, it’s becoming more acceptable for scholars to talk about this openly, and to acknowledge its power as a barrier to academic success. This is a big step, and I hope this trend continues.

But I’ve always felt that suggested solutions fall short of addressing the root causes. Go to therapy. Take days off. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Don’t be a perfectionist.

This isn’t advice isn’t bad so much as incomplete. There are reasons we don’t take enough time off and create impossibly high standards for ourselves–reasons that (I think) often arise from a combination of the way academia works and our own neuroses about who we’re supposed to be.

You can’t just erase all that by getting enough sleep.

What we need is a substantial shift in how we think about our academic work: how we should be doing work, how we should be coping with challenges, and the steps that should lead to academic success. If we’re going to stop working too hard and being perfectionists and overachievers, then we need to decide that it’s okay to alter our expectations of ourselves. We can’t just hear, “you should really take a day off”–we need to actually believe that taking time off is a good thing, so we don’t feel guilty and inferior when we do it.

We need to limit the power of the “shoulds”–both real and imaginary–so that we don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t match those expectations.

I’m not sure how to achieve this sort of shift, but I think being openly kind and understanding to ourselves and one another might be a good start. Try saying you’re glad you took that day off, because you really needed it. Tell a colleague it’s ok that they’re struggling to get that paper done; you had a similar problem, so you get it. When your whole department laughs at the fact that someone’s in their 9th year of graduate school, consider not joining in. Acknowledge out loud that it’s ok to be human and to neglect some of the “shoulds” if that’s what we need. (Kudos to the participants in #withaPhD chats on Twitter  for being pretty great at this!)

I hope that new PhD students might do this from the beginning. Those of you just starting out have the opportunity to help shape the culture of your graduate cohort. I hope you’ll choose to be kind to yourselves and one another–to help make that normal. It’s not just the decent thing to do; it might help you avoid the mental health issues that plague so many academics.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer incoming PhDs some advice (yes, we’re finally at the advice part!) that offers no “shoulds” or “musts”:

  1. Doing a PhD is hard.
    This should be obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re struggling to write a paper that your professor won’t drown in red ink. It’s not hard because you’re just not cut out for this; it’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard. Isn’t that why you’re in grad school to begin with?
  2. It’s hard for everyone.
    Yes, everyone. Even your annoying classmate who claims he’s never had trouble finishing a book in one day and already seems to have a solid grasp of the historiography. He might not admit it, but he’s struggling too. The others might just need a bit of coaxing: if you tell your fellow students that you’re having a tough time with something, they’ll probably reveal they’ve had similar experiences. And, yes, even the scholars you admire have trouble sometimes. That’s probably how they got where they are.
  3. It will be hard for you too, and that’s ok.
    You will likely struggle to produce that first chapter draft, or to write a decent book review, or to figure out how grant proposals work. Possibly all of the above. Sucking at these things won’t be fun, especially since there’s a reasonably good chance that you’ve never struggled with anything academic in your life. But you’ll learn more from sucking at something than you’ll ever learn from being perfect. Deal with the challenge in whatever way is best for you, but know that it’s entirely normal to find grad school really, really, spectacularly difficult. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it means you’re a human being.